Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: short stories

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be out in September 2020. Here’s an article about navigating the advice – and counter-advice – on building a house of short fiction.

Much has been said about short stories – as a form. They’re the literary equivalent of practising your scales, limbering up for the novel symphony. Publishers avoid them. Yet continue to publish them. Nobody reads them. Except they do. They’re back in fashion. They never went away. As Jane Rawson puts it ‘the short story is both on hiatus and in the prime of its life.’

When I began thinking about creating a collection, there was plenty of ‘how to’ advice about writing short stories and flash fictions but far less about crafting a compelling whole from various scraps. Maybe because it’s as simple as plonking them into one long document.

Not quite.

Reading like a reader

Herding all my stories into one file was revelatory. I tried to sit on the other side of the desk and read them as a reader – rather than the author. One thing leapt out: repetition of ideas, issues, images – even phrases. Nobody had noticed these little obsessions when I’d farmed them out to different places over the years.

I cut several stories. But how best to tend to the keepers?

Mix tapes, zoos, share houses

Nathan Scott Macnamara compares organising a collection to ‘sequencing an album’ or mixed cassette tape, striking ‘a balance between familiarity and change’ and ‘fulfilling the reader’s desires, while also challenging them.’

Randall Jarrell thinks it’s like ‘starting a zoo in your closet.’ The giraffe takes up all the space. As Valerie Trueblood quips, it doesn’t take long to identify which one is the giraffe.

I started to think of my collection as more like a share-house peopled by a mix of timid, loud, pedantic, erratic, reliable, long-termer tenants and fly-by-nighters. The allocation of rooms was paramount.

To theme or not

Some bind their collections to a distinct theme. When it comes to organizing a linked collection, chronology may have already done the job.

It’s been said themed collections – or ‘almost-novels’ – are easier to sell. Perhaps because continuity of characters/time/events may promise fewer gear-changes for the reader.

Set in a seaside village, Ursula Le Guin’s Searoad is bound by place and divided by intergenerational feuds.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, also in a seaside town, showcases an ensemble of protagonists. But Olive is the star, so too in the sequel Olive, Again.

Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light is hived into four parts, a hybrid, blurring multiple realities.

Toni Jordan’s Nine Days interlocks one-day-in-a-life of characters through time.

Apparently Nam Le’s award-winning The Boat was never marketed as a collection. Are these are novels, or collections? Or are they carving out space in between?

 Order in the house of short fiction

If your collection is not overtly themed – the question becomes which stories where? It seems logical to put the published pieces or prize-winners first, or the ones already edited by professionals. But suddenly the frame and the context have changed. Now there are many voices speaking from differently-decorated rooms, some of which will have porous walls. Others boast large windows with views to the gardens, as opposed to broom cupboard-sized affairs overlooking the bus depot.

So, who’s on first?

Macnamara says the opening story must do two things: ‘establish the writer’s authority’ and ‘prepare the reader’ for what’s to follow.

In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Speak to Me’ a quasi-alien whooshes into a fantasy writer’s backyard. The reader has been warned from page one – uncertainty abounds.

Amanda O’Callaghan’s ‘The Widow’s Snow’ invites us into a middle-aged woman’s thoughts during a protracted date. Ambiguity, trust, snap decisions and death, course through the book.

Josephine Rowe’s ‘Brisbane’ begins with ‘and’, pulling us in for the ride in Tarcutta Wake and addressing us mid-sentence, aka in media res.

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ sets up the skittles with the opening sentence: ‘The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.’ She does. And motors towards a murderer.

However, Daniyal Mueenuddin believes the ‘brightest’ story will entice the reader in. Others plump for the ‘best’ piece with the ‘widest’ appeal.

Find the shape

Matthew Fox offers ‘shapes’ for building collections eg mosaic and hourglass. There’s also the ‘tent pole’ – planting stronger pieces a few pages apart to hold the whole thing up.

As for stories of differing length, opinion seems divided about where to put longer stories (aka ‘the giraffes’). Weight it at the end, like Nam Le’s novella in The Boat, or satisfy early with a hearty appetizer. Flash fictions might flit about the equatorial centre. Recurring characters can inhabit adjoining rooms and whisper through the key holes. If there’s a title story, it may settle wherever it pleases.

The last word

For Macnamara, the last story should ‘make emotional sense of everything that’s come before’ and ‘wrap things up.’ Fox says they’re an opportunity to ‘open up to the world.’ The final page should be like the final page of all your stories. Equally resolved – or nebulous.

 Pitching to a publisher

Any decent proposal takes time and effort. Tease out idiosyncratic themes as well as the universal. Highlight any unusual angles, settings, characters, events.

When it comes to writing a synopsis, there’s plenty of advice about novel synopses, but there wasn’t much online about collections. I asked other writers.

Put your characters up front, one suggested. X does Y in Z.

I read a range of collections – recently published, classics – and scoured their blurbs and reviews, noting which stories were singled out, and the adjectives used ie gothic, gritty, cerebral, mythical, fierce, achingly real.

Before I sent out my collection, I rewrote all the stories, old, new, published, unpublished, long, short. If some were written for a themed competition or journal, I checked whether they still made sense transplanted in their new terrain.

I moved them all about many times in the hope they’d pique – and maintain the interest of a publisher – all the while knowing any potential editor would have their own ideas and strategies about what should go where – and which stories should stay or go.

Finally, I spackled together a log-line, wrote a long synopsis (one sentence per story), a short synopsis (a phrase) – and submitted both.

Rejection

Rejection is part of a writer’s job. There are more writing competitions now – and more writers. Fewer journals – and fewer publishers. Kim Liao famously aimed for 100 rejections a year.

Useful – or prohibitively expensive? Galvanising or soul-crumbling? Kim Liao later revisited her idea in her article about ‘creative failure’. It’s worth reading both.

I tend to send out my most polished pieces to the ‘right place’. By ‘polished’ I mean I edit, edit, edit. Or as the submission guidelines for Griffith Review state: ‘Good fiction writing stands out immediately – polish, proofread and repeat.’

By ‘sending to the right place’, I mean somewhere interested in my kind of work. The only way to discover this is by researching, reading, and subscribing to publications, and learning more about their editors and authors.

Just like rejection, research is also part of a writer’s remit.

Who knows if rejection gets any easier?

Perhaps it’s what you do with them that counts. Early on, a writing in my writing life a lecturer said she dealt with rejection by ‘crying for a day – then getting back to it.’ Natalie Goldberg learnt something similar from her Zen teacher in her famous handbook Writing Down the Bones: if you finish writing a book, excellent. Now, start another.

Whenever one of my stories gets a ‘no’, I’ll either pull the story apart, try another polish, or wait until a themed journal or competition seems a better fit.

The ‘good rejection’ is when an editor takes the time to send a comment along with the no thanks. Their notes might be a critique or an encouragement. Either way I thank them, and ruminate on what they’ve suggested. It might not resonate immediately, but sometimes it’s enough to spark a rethink or an overhaul – or keep me plugging away.

Some recalibrated stories are eventually picked up. Others – never.

I keep various incarnations on files by year, flick through them occasionally, excise the odd sentence or idea, cut false leads, and see if something new emerges.

The best story on rejection closes out Maxine Beneba Clarke’s award-winning collection Foreign Soil.

Allegedly semi-biographical – the protagonist in ‘The Ski-yaki Book Club’ is a struggling writer scratching out a living in her cramped apartment next to a railway track. She amasses her growing stash of rejection slips as ‘literary armour’ against a world she’s been told is not ready for her kind of work. But as Emily Laidlaw points out in her reading notes on Foreign Soil, that this book exists at all proves they were wrong.

Success

So if your collection finally gets the nod – fantastic. You’re one of the lucky ones who’s persisted. You’ve found a publisher who ‘gets’ your work and is willing to invest time, money, and energy into editing, improving, and promoting it.

But what to say when usually omnivorous readers claim they never read short stories? Never? All short stories? Not even by authors they already admire – Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, Gail Jones, Zadie Smith?

Isn’t that a bit like saying you don’t like music?

Perhaps you’ll try to persuade them and say short stories are perfect for our busy lives, perfect to dive into during the daily commute, to flick through while the pasta boils, or as a welcome distraction in the waiting room.

Or perhaps you’ll smile at your new book clutched in their hands – hoping its contents will surprise, illuminate, entertain, provoke, amuse, engage – and they’ll become so intrigued by your glimpses into your strangely familiar tenants’ minds and worlds – they’ll forget about the type of house you’ve built for them to share.

Emma Ashmere’s short fictions have appeared in the Age, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, and shortlisted for 2018 NUW/Overland Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize. Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in September 2020.

Read more of Emma’s posts on reading and writing short stories here.

A version of this article first appeared in the Bryon Writers Festival magazine Northerly March 2020.

 

Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist: When a story arrives

The Queens Theatre Adelaide, 1992, photo by Delma Corazon.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ has just been published on adda, the online literary magazine for the Commonwealth Foundation. The story was shortlisted for the Pacific region of the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.

‘Nightfall’ is set in 1800s Adelaide and features the Prado Music Hall at the old Queens Theatre. Apparently it’s the oldest theatre in mainland Australia.

I was actually writing something else when the voice of the protagonist arrived. I scribbled it down, submitted it to a few places, had no luck, cut it by a third, thought why not, and sent it into the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize – and was stunned to hear many months later it was shortlisted.

Since then, my short story collection Dreams They Forgot has been picked up by Wakefield Press and will be published in September 2020. ‘Nightfall’ will be in the collection.

My thanks to all involved with the Prize, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Thanks also to Delma Corazon giving permission to use her photo.

The 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize closes on 1 November 2019. Entry is free, there’s a diverse panel of judges, and you can submit in a number of languages.

Best of luck!

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in September 2020 by Wakefield Press.

Author interview on Wordmothers

Hello there,

This interview has just been posted on the wonderful Wordmothers site:

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?

I wrote the beginnings of stories as a child. When I was in my twenties working as a cook and travelling overseas, occasionally a typewriter would come my way. I’d eagerly perch it on a fold-down wall-bed but didn’t know where to start. When I returned home to do a BA in the 1990s, I attempted my first ‘proper’ short story. In the late 1990s I enrolled in the newly established Creative Writing MA at the University of Adelaide. I remember sitting in the first class in the stifling February heat, knowing that was where I was meant to be.

Read the full interview here
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Some of Emma’s short story publications

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in September 2020 by Wakefield Press.

On short stories: Make every word count

On short stories: Putting the only words in the only order

Short story writers are often told to ‘make every word count’. But what does this mean? And how can we identify and winkle out those sluggish words, clichéd ideas, and flaky images that once seemed so vital, original and essential in our own first drafts?

Mark Twain allegedly lamented to a friend he’d wanted to ‘write a shorter letter but didn’t have the time’. If the single defining element of the short story is its brevity, then precision is everything. And like any finely-tuned motor skill, precision takes practice and patience. Of course longer forms also depend on exactitude, but there are simply less places for dead ends or missteps to hide in a more concentrated hit of words. According to Mel Campbell ‘anyone can noodle on for 10,000 words, but it takes creativity and discipline to express oneself within word limits.’

Word count can be both friend and foe. A 500 word cap challenges the writer to keep on track, but that track still must offer an arresting glimpse of life, relationships, the world etc. On the downside, enforced limits can cramp your style. When a piece balloons over its allotted space, there are probably only two options. Keep it for another occasion when word limit isn’t an issue. Or cut.

Ali Smith talks about needing to find your own ‘balance between instinct and edit’. For some stories less will be more. For others, less really is less. Multiple ideas, extravagant details of setting and mood, the number of characters, or quirks of voice might be the very elements you’d hoped would hook and haunt the reader. Lose those hard-wrought surprises and idiosyncrasies, and the story risks diluting into ordinariness. If a story keeps buckling against the word limit, there’s no going wider. So go deeper.

Kurt Vonnegut said every sentence must either ‘advance the plot’ or reveal something compelling about the character. If I think a story is worth redrafting, one of the most useful questions is: ‘do I need this?’ First lines, last lines, dialogue, heavy-handed or colourless titles, characters’ names, favourite phrases – nothing is safe from the scalpel. Openings must act as irresistible invitations to read on, however Jennifer Mills warns against ‘strong beginnings’ petering out. As for endings, ‘a short story doesn’t have to have a neat ending, but it should turn – it should show readers the moment something changes.’

Priscilla Long suggests making a list of ten things you want to include before you start such as objects, feelings, colours, places, people, events, particular phrases. Even if you haven’t done this, go back and see what’s survived the redrafting knife. Is this still the story you wanted to write?

After fine-combing through several times, the words that kick-started the piece might suddenly seem clunky. Some will be worth refashioning. Others won’t. Check every word is working as hard as the 499 other pistons hopefully chugging away in the engine room keeping the story ticking over. Even the seemingly insignificant ones such as ‘the’ and ‘and’ must pull their weight.

Reading aloud can help detect stumbles, flat spots, unintended repetitions, clumsy rhythms, clanging notes. Try to imagine you’re sitting on the other side of the editor’s desk, listening in. What would make this story leap straight over the ‘no’ pile and into the ‘yes’?

Some pieces will never amount to more than exercises. But the act of writing is never wasted. Set them aside for awhile, then revisit and try to see what you’d change in them now. Some pithy lines might even be salvageable for recycling elsewhere.

At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about the benefits of having a wood-burning stove in her study. Apparently she feeds it regularly with paper and ink. She also said that good writing of any length means putting ‘the right words in the right order’. Later, this was refined slightly. Good writing is about finding ‘the only words’ and putting them ‘in the only order’. No multiple choice. No ‘and/or’. There’s only one right word, or 500 right words. And it’s every writer’s job to pounce on them and place them where they can chug away, unfettered, at full capacity.

This article first appeared in the Northern Rivers Writers Centre’s newsletter northerly, November 2014.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in September 2020 by Wakefield Press.